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Trump could significantly alter U.S. climate priorities

The Biden administration's regulatory efforts have defined the U.S. approach to climate over the last four years. That could change if Trump wins the 2024 election.

The U.S. approach to climate issues and energy investments might look substantially different depending on the outcome of the 2024 presidential election.

President Joe Biden has led numerous climate actions over the last four years, including signing the Inflation Reduction Act into law and expanding tax incentives for businesses to invest in clean energy technologies. Biden has also pushed for more rules governing power plant and electric vehicle (EV) emissions. If former President Donald Trump wins the election, there could be a step back from government incentives for clean energy technology investments in solar and wind as well as a greater focus on other energy sources such as nuclear, oil and natural gas.

While there are areas where Trump and Biden's goals might look similar, such as securing the critical materials supply chain, both Biden and Trump's approaches to fixing those issues will differ. Additionally, Congressional elections will play a significant role in either Biden or Trump's approach to climate, as there are limitations to what the executive branch can do, said Philip Rossetti, a senior fellow at the independent research organization R Street Institute.

Rossetti said he doubts a Trump administration would have much interest in climate policy.

"They dipped their toes in the waters in the early years of the first Trump administration, and it wasn't something they seemed to want to engage in continually," he said. "They shifted to only addressing this in a broader energy policy framework. To the extent that a lot of these efforts might be climate improving, great. But it wasn't necessarily the priority."

U.S. climate approach under Biden

The last four years have seen the Biden administration make "historic investments in climate programs, including renewable energy, pollution remediation programs, multi-module transportation and mobility," said Shannon Baker-Branstetter, senior director of domestic climate and energy policy at the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan policy institute.

Additionally, Baker-Branstetter said legislation such as the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) drove investments in EV batteries, renewable energy and clean energy manufacturing.

"These public dollars have incentivized a lot of private investments in renewable energy and clean vehicles," Baker-Branstetter said.

Baker-Branstetter said the Biden administration has implemented significant regulations. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Biden administration has issued stronger rules for emissions from power plants and vehicles. Meanwhile, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has also adopted climate rules requiring businesses to report on their carbon emissions. However, the EPA and SEC face strong legal challenges to their climate rules, which threaten their survival, Rossetti said.

Still, the Biden administration's efforts on the regulatory front send strong signals to the market, Rossetti said. Advancing more regulations will also likely continue to be a significant focus of the Biden administration if he is re-elected, he said.

"Very often, manufacturers and industries have to comply with regulations even if they don't think that it's legal because the compliance timeline might be short enough that they could get dinged if the courts take too long to address it," he said.

Baker-Branstetter said that should Biden win re-election, he'll likely focus on securing his regulatory measures and tackle new goals as well.

The Biden administration will likely increase efforts for carbon emission mitigation investments and requirements, Baker-Branstetter said. The administration could also move faster on increasing solar and offshore wind deployment. The Biden administration might also focus on improving the electric grid, transmission lines and energy storage to facilitate an increase in renewable energy; EVs; and even new technologies, such as generative AI.

"Updating the electric grid, making sure it's resilient and supportive of all these increases in demand, especially as we're seeing increases in demand from not-so-clean sources like data centers that are really dwarfing the demand from EVs …" Baker-Branstetter said.

Changes Trump could make

Rossetti said a new Trump administration will likely change the social cost of carbon, which estimates the damage done by each ton of carbon emissions, and the benefits resulting from actions to cut carbon emissions.

The Biden administration estimated the cost to be $51 a ton, and the EPA proposed to increase that estimate to $190 in 2022. The former Trump administration estimated the cost to be between $3 and $5 a ton. Policymakers can use the social cost of carbon figure when considering regulatory proposals addressing carbon emissions.

"What I would expect Trump to do is unwind the social cost of carbon in a big way," Rossetti said.

Trump could also withdraw from international climate commitments, Baker-Branstetter said. The former Trump administration pulled out of climate efforts such as the Paris Agreement.

To the extent that a lot of these efforts might be climate improving, great. But it wasn't necessarily the priority.
Philip RossettiSenior fellow, R Street Institute

Baker-Branstetter said Trump's statements indicate his approach will be pro-fossil fuels and less interest in technologies such as electric vehicles. A Trump administration might target certain tax credits for investment in areas such as EVs and solar. However, a wholesale repeal of tax credits through legislation such as the IRA is unlikely.

Rossetti said a Trump administration could focus on making the IRA tax credits more efficient. The IRA has had issues, such as providing credits and incentives to large businesses who had already planned to make clean energy investments.

"The issue is, we're paying a lot more money to get a very small climate benefit relative to the cost," Rossetti said.

The former Trump administration did act on certain energy initiatives, Rossetti said. The Energy Act of 2020 funded research and development in electric grid modernization, critical materials security and clean energy technologies. The former Trump administration also advanced several energy initiatives, including carbon capture expansions as well as nuclear and hydropower investments.

Project 2025, a policy initiative created by conservative organizations, including The Heritage Foundation, claim that the next four years under a Trump administration would include repealing the IRA. Policies would also focus on an "all of the above" approach to energy, which means harnessing all sources of energy, including fossil fuels, by stopping the "war on oil and natural gas."

The approach outlined in Project 2025 also includes a heavy focus on nuclear power and streamlining the nuclear licensing process, processing critical materials domestically, and eliminating carbon capture programs.

For additional information on Trump's and Biden's approach to technology policy, see TechTarget Editorial's guide to candidate stances on tech.

Makenzie Holland is a senior news writer covering big tech and federal regulation. Prior to joining TechTarget Editorial, she was a general assignment reporter for the Wilmington StarNews and a crime and education reporter at the Wabash Plain Dealer.

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